IN THE LAND OF WOMEN
Running time 97 minutes
Written and Directed by Jonathan Kasdan
Starring Adam Brody and Meg Ryan
Thank God a few directors are still interested in exploring the heartbreaking journeys of ordinary people dealing with small issues that are universal. In the Land of Women offers no brutality, action, blood, sex, nudity, horror or formulaic solution to box-office glory. But in his feature-film-directing debut, writer-director Jonathan Kasdan chronicles the somewhat conventional encounters of an aspiring writer named Carter Webb (the excellent Adam Brody) with a variety of women who affect his life in unconventional ways. Remarkable in its subtlety, restraint and maturity of vision, it sneaks up on you with stealthy fingers and steals your heart away.
Mr. Kasdan, the son of acclaimed director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist), is a talent to watch. He cares about the pain of everyday life and deploys just the right amount of understated sensitivity to observe it without sentimentality. Carter is bright, curious and perceptive enough to write the novel he’s been putting on hold, but the material trappings of Hollywood have distracted him while he fritters away his time writing soft-core porn and romancing a heartless, superficial actress. When she dumps him in a West Hollywood coffee shop to selfishly find her own “space,” Carter sinks into a bottomless pit of depression and self-pity. Conflicted and lost, he packs up his emotional scars and flies to Michigan to visit his ailing grandmother and “find” himself. What he finds is that everything in life is sic transit. Even isolated from the neon delusion of show business, there is no escape from human interaction. Instead of a nurturing haven from reality, Grandma (Olympia Dukakis) is a bitter, neurotic old reprobate with Alzheimer’s who views everything around her with mean-spirited venom and foul-mouthed invectives. The women in the family across the street are Sarah (Meg Ryan), a fading and underappreciated wife and mother with an unfaithful husband, and her two problematic daughters. Cautiously warming to her new neighbor, who walks her dog and carries her groceries from the supermarket, Sarah learns to trust, sharing intimate secrets with Carter, and he opens up about his career anxieties and frustrations with the opposite sex. It is to Mr. Kasdan’s credit that neither the affair you know is coming nor the mushy love theme that accompanies it ever materializes. Thwarted in mid-plot after Sarah has a mastectomy, nothing more dramatic than a sweet kiss ever happens, but the writer-in-crisis grows up and learns some valuable lessons in life and death from the women he meets. Moral: If you get your heart shattered, be brave enough to pick up the shards and keep going, even if you find the road signs pointing in the opposite direction from where you started.
There are caveats. Adam Brody is too young and skinny and green behind the ears to be convincing as a writer of skanky XXX-rated sex films. Even without collagen and a few forehead wrinkles instead of Max Factor, Meg Ryan is too beautiful and perky to be believable as a middle-aged woman with breast cancer. And in the Grandma role, Olympia Dukakis is damned close to unbearable. I guess she’s supposed to be endearing because she walks around wearing no underwear, gives everyone the finger, and says things like “Who gives a fuck?” All she does is make senility look irritating. Still, it is amazing to discover just how much this absorbing, intelligent picture has going for it: a strong sense of time and place, interesting characters, painfully sincere direction and an intriguing scenario that pauses and breathes in all the right places. The elements of soap opera hover, yet Mr. Kasdan never loses his grip, and the film will do nothing for the sale of Kleenex. I shudder to think how In the Land of Women would have turned out in the days of Ross Hunter and the Hollywood studio system.